by Toni Morrison
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Owning a house—the American dream. A white picket fence, a perfectly manicured garden, a backyard with a swingset for the kids. Oh, but don't forget about the mortgage, electricity bills, flooding in the basement, repairing the leaky roof… yeah.
On a basic, what-does-this-mean-for-the-plot level, houses signify responsibility—a lot of it. That's why you can practically see Mr. Bodwin shaking his head in despair after the whole incident with Sethe, the townswomen, and Beloved. If you're a homeowner like he is, you're thinking about your property value.
Mrs. Garner's in a similar situation. Sweet Home is being rented out to a family run amok—after schoolteacher arrives and turns the whole plantation upside down, that is. See what we mean? Houses need managing. You can't just turn it over to anyone.
But you know what they say: "With great power comes great responsibility." The white homeowners have power, and the responsibility comes along with it. Houses are a form of responsibility the ex-slaves in this book never really get to enjoy—except for Baby Suggs in her happy phase. (Take a look at our discussion of "Setting" for more on slaves and home-ownership.)
Houses mean permanence, and permanence—if you're an ex-slave—isn't always a good thing. Here's Sethe, giving Denver her take on Sweet Home:
Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It's never going away. Even if the whole farm—every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what's more, if you go there—you who never was there—if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.
Sethe's not so chipper here, and for good reason. Houses are connected to memories—as in bad memories that don't disappear. No wonder Sethe goes on and warns Denver never to go back to that place or house:
So, Denver, you can't never go there. Never. Because even though it's all over-over and done with—it's going to always be there waiting for you. That's how come I had to get all my children out. No matter what. (3.90)